Pittsylvania County Delegate Don Merricks says he is not convinced that lifting the state's moratorium on uranium mining is the right thing to do at this time.
Merricks made the statement Thursday morning in Richmond during a discussion of uranium mining organized by the Associated Press.
A Republican, Merricks represents the 16th House District, which includes the Coles Hill property in Pittsylvania County, where Virginia Uranium hopes to mine what is believed to be the largest undeveloped deposit of uranium in the United States. He is also a member of the Uranium Mining Subcommittee of the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission.
Merricks said he has wrestled with the need for economic development in southern Virginia, and the environmental risks that uranium mining could create. He told reporters he believes uranium can be mined safely, but the milling process gives him great concern.
Merricks said there are still too many questions about uranium mining in Virginia. "I don't think it's the right thing to do at this time," he concluded.
The panel discussion at the State Capitol also included Patrick Wales, Project Manager for Virginia Uranium. He defended the project, saying recent studies have proven that uranium mining can move forward without risking environmental damage or threats to public safety. Wales said he believes there is strong support in the House of Delegates and the State Senate for uranium mining. Whatever happens in the upcoming session of the General Assembly, Wales said Virginia Uranium will continue its efforts to develop the Coles Hill site.
Here is the complete text of Merricks' comments Thursday in Richmond:
Uranium, what’s a legislator to do?
The question of whether or not to lift Virginia’s long-standing ban on mining and milling uranium has been very divisive going back to the mid 80s. I was elected to the General Assembly in 2007. I am the only General Assembly House of Delegates representative with a uranium site ready to be mined and milled should the ban be lifted. From the beginning of this cycle to lift the ban, I have carried a heavy burden to do the right thing, first and most importantly for my district, second for my state and third for my country. I feel this is one of the most important decisions I will make as a state legislator and I pray often I will do the right thing, not the political thing or the party thing but the right thing. The issue is too great with the potential for great reward or serious consequences.
That is why I have worked diligently to listen and learn with an open mind. I have heard from proponents and opponents on this issue who deliver their views with great commitment to their beliefs. I have read studies and reports, reviewed facts and spoken with experts on the pros and cons of mining and milling uranium. Through this process I am now able to frame both sides as I see them.
On the one hand, the proponents of mining and milling site the dire need for jobs and the tax revenue boost this industry will provide for our county, a much needed boost I might add. In addition, I have heard the argument that this country needs a cleaner, more reliable source of energy and nuclear energy will provide that source. Uranium mined at Coles Hill would provide the fuel to power these reactors and provide clean energy to our citizens.
On the other hand, the opponents site several issues that should conclude this is a bad idea. These include: health and safety of the citizens, environmental contamination, unanswered questions relating to mining and the costs to be borne by the Commonwealth, not only in the mining phase, but in years and years to come to maintain a hazardous waste site, the stigma of mining that will attach to our community should the ban be lifted, the low grade of uranium on this site, and several others.
With that said, I have come to several conclusions. There is no question in my mind that uranium mining and milling will provide the potential for health risks and environmental contamination. Even with the world’s best practices in place and the most stringent regulations, the potential for contamination still exist. I could live with the mining part, provided plans were in place to make whole any surrounding water wells and properties that are adversely affected by such mining. I believe the experience the Commonwealth has amassed over the years with the mining industry will provide the necessary rules and regulations to follow if mining were allowed.
However, it’s the milling part of the process that gives me great pause and reservation. Again, I have read the reports and spoken with experts in this field and after all is said and done; I do not like putting this burden of containment and years of supervision on the taxpayers of the Commonwealth. We are talking about maintaining, in reality, a “Superfund” waste site forever. Forever is a long time and quite frankly I do not believe there are enough bonds floating around that would provide the necessary assurances to our citizens in case of a breech.
There just are too many unanswered questions that still exist in my mind. What does science say about the potential contamination? What best management practices are in place to insure that no harm is done to public safety, the environment, and the economy? What happens when the price of uranium drops and it is no longer economically feasible to mine? How long does a mine stay in dormant status and what is done with the mill tailings while in dormant status? What assurances does the county have that sufficient safeguards are in place to prevent an environmental catastrophe? There is no doubt that regulations can be written and implemented to regulate this industry, but the regulations themselves do not eliminate the risks that are present.
From the very onset of this discussion, I have repeatedly stated that I need to be convinced that mining and milling is the right thing to do. I have friends on both sides of this issue. Whatever decision I make, I will most certainly make someone mad. As of today, I am not convinced that science has caught up with the proposed tailings management plan being suggested by Virginia Uranium. One day it may, but today, I just don’t believe it’s there. If we can put a man on the moon and Curiosity on Mars, then we should be able to develop a way to isolate the harmful effects of mining and milling uranium. One day, that may happen, but today, I’m not convinced it’s the right thing to do. Rod Rogers once said, “Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Consensus asks the question “Is it popular?” Courage asks the question “Is it right?”
That is the question “Is it right?” At this point in time, with so many unanswered questions, I don’t think it is the right thing to write regulations or to lift the ban on mining and milling uranium.